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Washington and other states should wait for federal action on net neutrality, advocate says

UPDATED: Fri., Feb. 23, 2018

Rick Boucher, a former Virginia congressman, co-chairs the Washington, D.C.-based Internet Innovation Alliance. He is photographed during an interview at The Spokesman-Review on Friday, Feb. 23, 2018. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)
Rick Boucher, a former Virginia congressman, co-chairs the Washington, D.C.-based Internet Innovation Alliance. He is photographed during an interview at The Spokesman-Review on Friday, Feb. 23, 2018. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

Washington and Oregon should hold off on passing net neutrality laws for their states and wait for Congress to act on national legislation, an open internet advocate says.

Rick Boucher, a former Virginia congressman who now co-chairs the Washington, D.C.-based Internet Innovation Alliance, predicts the passage of federal legislation within two years. A bipartisan effort, including leadership from U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Oregon, is already underway, he said.

Boucher said consumers won’t be hurt by waiting for congressional action. Big providers – including AT&T, Verizon and Comcast – already have agreed to honor net neutrality, and federal rules allow regulators to enforce the voluntary pledge, Boucher said Friday during an interview in Spokane.

State action “is not needed and potentially risky,” he said.

A patchwork of state regulations on the issue will create problems, according to Boucher, by deterring internet providers from investing millions of dollars in broadband, including rural areas.

“It’s a challenge to deploy broadband in rural America. It’s challenging under the best circumstances,” said Boucher, a Democrat who represented a mountainous rural congressional district in Virginia and chaired the subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet.

Boucher said Internet providers will think twice about making costly investments to provide faster service in low-population areas if they face additional layers of state regulation, he said.

Internet speed remains an issue in many of the Northwest’s rural communities, which lag behind their urban counterparts, said Tom Gurr, executive director of the Issaquah-based Pacific Technology Alliance.

In places such as northeast Washington, “the challenge is how to reach the high speeds that we all want,” Gurr said.

Washington, Oregon and a handful of other states are currently considering their own net neutrality laws. The proposed legislation is designed to ensure that internet service providers treat all web traffic equally, preventing them from manipulating or blocking traffic. The states’ action comes after a recent Federal Communications Commission decision removing Obama-era regulations requiring equal treatment.

In Washington’s Legislature, the net neutrality measure has broad support. More than 50 co-sponsors signed onto a House bill designed to ensure that internet providers don’t treat some businesses or customers differently with either higher fees or slower speeds. It passed the House on a 93-5 vote earlier this month, heading to the Senate for consideration.

In addition, Washington has joined 21 other states and the District of Columbia in appealing the FCC’s December decision to rescind net neutrality rules.

While bipartisan cooperation is rare in Congress these days, Boucher said, he’s confident Democrats and Republicans will reach accord on this issue. Each party wants something, he said.

Democrats want net neutrality provisions in federal law, while Republicans want assurance that federal regulators will treat internet providers with a “light touch,” Boucher said. Internet providers want that, too. They want to prevent the FCC from setting rates in the future or terms of service, he said.

Passage of bipartisan legislation would protect net neutrality while giving internet service providers the regulatory assurance they need to keep investing in access, he said.

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